Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1.

, Samsung Electronics America Inc.

Digital Life: Samsung's new tablet straining to do it all

  • Article by: DAVID POGUE
  • New York Times
  • August 21, 2012 - 10:34 PM

The hot news in Silicon Valley legal circles these days is Apple's titanic lawsuit against Samsung. Apple maintains that Samsung pilfered some of its iPhone and iPad designs when creating the Samsung Galaxy series of phones and tablets.

It's a big, big deal -- billions of dollars are at stake. And it's already having an effect. These days, Samsung is being careful to avoid unvarnished Apple mimicry.

Take the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, an iPad competitor, which went on sale Thursday. Its message to the tablet-buying world is this: "OK, the iPad is great for consuming stuff -- reading books, watching videos, surfing the Web. But our new Galaxy tablet is also good for creating stuff, for one simple reason: It comes with a pen. See how different we are from Apple?"

Now, introducing a stylus in this day and age may seem a little backward. The PalmPilot had a stylus. The Apple Newton had a stylus. All of those awful, failed Windows tablet computers had a stylus. When the iPad came out, requiring only a fingertip for control, the stylus looked as quaint as hand-cranked cars.

But Samsung's original Galaxy Note, a weirdly sized, five-inch combination tablet and phone, sold very well, at least in Europe -- and it had a pen. Samsung hopes that lightning will strike twice with the 10-inch Galaxy Note 10.

The base model, Wi-Fi only, costs $500. It comes with 16 gigabytes of storage (same as the base iPad model) and 2 gigabytes of memory (twice as much as the iPad).

It's absolutely loaded with features. Front and back cameras (1.9 megapixels front, 5 megapixels back, with LED flash). A card slot to expand the storage (the iPad doesn't have that). An infrared blaster that can control your TV system. Front-facing stereo speakers that sound much better than the iPad's mono speaker.

Yet despite all of this, the Note is a hair thinner (0.35 inch) and lighter (1.3 pounds) than the iPad.

When you hold it, you realize why right away: It feels plasticky and insubstantial.

Side-by-side apps

One of the Note's chief breakthroughs is side-by-side apps. You can keep a Web page and a page of notes next to each other on the screen, and copy and paste (or drag) material between them. Or you can keep a video playing in one window while you try to get inspired for the document you're writing in the word processor (part of a low-rent Microsoft Office look-alike called Polaris Office).

That's a big change. It takes the tablet one step closer to the flexibility -- and complexity -- of a real PC.

At the moment, Samsung has permitted only six apps to work in side-by-side mode: e-mail, browser, video player, notepad, photo gallery and Polaris Office. Those are the natural apps you'd want to run this way, but it would be nice if you could multitask with any app at all. (Samsung says that in time, it will add the calendar and other apps to the list of side-by-side candidates.)

Samsung has also added, to Google's year-old Android Ice Cream Sandwich software, the option to summon special mini-apps from the bottom of the screen: widgets that display your calendar, music, notepad and so on.

The pen is sometimes handy for regular finger tasks -- tapping the on-screen keys or buttons -- but really take off in S Note, a special program that accompanies the stylus. Here you can scribble freehand notes or make back-of-the-napkin drawings.

In one mode, you can draw freehand and marvel as the software straightens out your squiggles into perfect lines and geometric shapes (Newton flashback!). In another, you can write words -- the Note converts them into typed text. There's even a math-formula mode for students, which recognizes handwritten formulas and even solves them.

These features are impressive, but it's difficult to see how often they would be useful. The Note carries on many previous Samsung technologies. You can beam photos to the tablet from certain Samsung cameras. You can beam the tablet's screen image to a TV (much like Apple's AirPlay technology) if you buy an optional "HDMI dongle" for your TV, coming this fall. A feature called Smart Stay uses the front camera for eye tracking; when you're not actually looking at the tablet, it dims the screen to save battery power. That's supercool.

But over all, the Note feels like a laundry-list tablet. It has a higher feature count than any other tablet, but those features are stuffed into a machine with less coherence than any other tablet.

Clearly, Samsung had no Steve Jobs on hand to veto anything. Features that don't work well are mixed in with the winners; features you'll never use are jammed in with the useful ones.

In general, Samsung is on fire these days. Its Galaxy phones are the iPhone's chief competitors. It's building an ecosystem of accessories and online stores to rival Apple's.

But the Galaxy Note 10.1 demonstrates that superior specs, more impressive hardware and a much longer list of features don't necessarily add up to a superior product.

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